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Shots In The Back, Children Tasered: DOJ Details Excessive Force By Chicago Police

Friends of Paul O'Neal attend a vigil to remember him on Aug. 5, 2016, in Chicago. O'Neal, an unarmed 18-year-old man, was shot and fatally wounded the month before when Chicago police officers tried to arrest him for allegedly stealing a car from the suburbs.
Joshua Lott
Getty Images
Friends of Paul O'Neal attend a vigil to remember him on Aug. 5, 2016, in Chicago. O'Neal, an unarmed 18-year-old man, was shot and fatally wounded the month before when Chicago police officers tried to arrest him for allegedly stealing a car from the suburbs.

Fleeing, unarmed people shot in the back. Mentally ill men and women, not suspected of any crime, stunned by a Taser while they lay on the ground. People already detained or incapacitated who were beaten, with police accounts falsely describing the force as necessary.

A 161-page report from the Justice Department details harrowing accounts of excessive force by the Chicago Police Department and highlights systemic failures that allow the violence to continue even as members of the public attempt to protest or report the brutality.

The investigation was launched after the death of Laquan McDonald in 2014 put Chicago's policing practices in the spotlight. Video released by court order showed a police officer shooting the black teenager in the back.

The report found an ongoing "pattern or practice" of unreasonable and excessive force — not a series of isolated events. And the violations are rarely punished, the DOJ says, as officers' descriptions of encounters are taken "at face value" even when there's contradictory evidence.

What does that mean for Chicago residents? The DOJ included a number of "illustrative examples" of the police department's systemic failings. Here's what that pattern of excessive force looks like on the ground:

Shooting at fleeing suspects

In "numerous incidents," Chicago officers chased and shot fleeing people who posed no threat to officers or the public, the DOJ says. In some cases, there was no basis even to suspect the person of committing a serious crime.

"The act of fleeing alone was sufficient to trigger a pursuit ending in gunfire, sometimes fatal," the DOJ writes.

In one case, the report says, police officers fired 45 rounds at a man who was running away, killing him. They claimed he had fired a gun at them while they were chasing him — even though they noted there was no gun found on the man.

And there were these examples:

"In another case, a CPD officer chased a man who ran when an officer told him to stop, and then shot the man in the back of the leg. The officer claimed the man had turned to point a gun. After a thorough search of the scene, no gun was recovered. The man, who denied ever turning to face the officer, was found only with a cell phone. ...

"In another case, a CPD officer fatally shot a fleeing, unarmed suspect in the back. The officer told investigators the suspect had turned around to point a black object. This account did not square with the location of the shooting victim's gunshot wounds and appeared contrary to video footage that showed the suspect running away from the officer."

The department doesn't have a foot pursuit policy for officers to follow. In all three of these cases, the department accepted the officers' accounts and found the shootings justified.

The DOJ also notes that the shooting of McDonald was a foot pursuit of a person who did not pose a threat, and it, like many other such chases, came to a "tragic end."

Using Tasers against people who pose no threat

The report found a pattern of officers using Tasers in unreasonable situations, with the department generally not investigating the incidents at all.

The DOJ said it was difficult to track this practice, because the department kept such poor records on it — but still, the report found numerous examples.

Chicago police chose to use Tasers on:

  • A woman in a mental health crisis — not suspected of any crime — who failed to follow commands and "stiffened."
  • A man suspected of petty theft. (He hit his head and died after a Taser was used on him.)
  • An "unarmed, naked, 65-year-old-woman who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia."
  • A juvenile who fled after he was caught painting graffiti.
  • A 16-year-old girl who flailed her arms after she was asked to leave school for having a cellphone.
  • A 14-year-old girl in a fight.
  • There's no department policy on using Tasers on children, the DOJ found.

    Use of force as retaliation and against children

    Officers sometimes hurt people as retaliation, the DOJ found — including retaliation against citizens who claimed a police stop was unlawful.

    They once used pain compliance techniques on a man who "stiffened and locked his arms while they were arresting him for walking his dog without a leash and refusing to present identification."

    The DOJ also highlighted an example of a 12-year-old Latino boy who was riding his bike under his father's supervision. A plainclothes officer, "responding to a report of 'two male Hispanics running from' the area," pulled the child off his bike, handcuffed him and pushed him up against a fence, without explanation to father or son.

    "The officer's only apparent basis for this detention was the boy's race, which is constitutionally unreasonable," the DOJ found.

    Acceptance of officers' accounts, in face of contradicting evidence

    Time and again, the DOJ found, officers claimed their use of force was reasonable and the police department took their word for it — even in the face of video evidence showing obvious excessive brutality.

    Here's just one example. Police officers falsely claimed that a woman had attacked them, the DOJ writes:

    "In the video, officers can be seen aggressively grabbing the woman, who was being arrested for a prostitution offense, throwing her to the ground, and surrounding her. After she is handcuffed, one officer tells another to 'tase her ten f- - - - - - times.' Officers call her an animal, threaten to kill her and her family, and scream, 'I'll put you in a UPS box and send you back to wherever the f- - - you came from' while hitting the woman — who was handcuffed and on her knees. Officers can then be seen discovering a recording device and discussing whether they can take it. Supervisors approved this use of force and the officers were not disciplined until after the woman complained to [the Independent Police Review Authority] and produced surveillance video of the event."

    Putting youths in danger as coercion

    One section of the report is dedicated to dangerous and potentially unlawful tactics the CPD apparently uses to gain information about locations of weapons, gang activity or drug activity.

    The DOJ says its investigation indicates that officers will sometimes arrest someone for a low-level offense or on false pretense and refuse to let the person go until he or she gives up information about where police can find guns stashed illegally. If the person can't or won't give a location, the officers reportedly will "take a young person to a rival gang neighborhood and either leave the person there or display the youth to rival members, immediately putting the life of that young person in jeopardy by suggesting he has provided information to the police."

    One teenager reported his brother was dropped off in rival territory and told "better get to running." There's video footage of officers standing around a car with a "cowering teenager" detained in the backseat, as they allow other young men to crowd around the car and make gang signs.

    "In addition to the likely illegality of this conduct, its impact on community trust cannot be overstated," the DOJ writes. "The fear and anger created by these practices was obvious when we talked with individuals who reported these experiences."

    A disproportionate impact on people of color

    The use of unreasonable force mostly burdens minority communities in Chicago, the DOJ found. Black and Latino communities in the city suffer from higher crime and have more contact with police — and thus experience more incidents of excessive force.

    The CPD was found to use force 10 times more often against black residents than against whites.

    The disparity is especially vivid when it comes to use of force against minors — 83 percent involved black children and 14 percent involved Latino children.

    Many of the Justice Department findings will come as no surprise to communities of color.

    Echoing the words of residents and activists over the decades, the DOJ says that starting from a young age, Chicago's minorities "have a vastly different experience with police than do white people," marked by negative and "often tragic" interactions.

    There's also "routinely abusive behavior" toward minority residents of Chicago, the report found:

    "Black youth told us that they are routinely called 'n- - - -r,' 'animal,' or 'pieces of [s***]' by CPD officers. A 19-year-old black male reported that CPD officers called him a 'monkey.' Such statements were confirmed by CPD officers. One officer we interviewed told us that he personally has heard coworkers and supervisors refer to black individuals as monkeys, animals, savages, and 'pieces of [s***].' "

    The DOJ found 354 complaints of Chicago officers using the N-word. Only four were sustained by police investigators — two because there were audio recordings, one because the officer admitted to it, and the last because the woman being berated was married to a police officer who took "extraordinary measures to document the incident."

    Some officers, including supervisors, have made discriminatory posts — like "the only good Muslim is a f- - - - - - dead one" — on social media, often without repercussions.

    Meanwhile, white residents who file a complaint about police misconduct are far more likely to see a result — their complaints are 2 1/2 times more likely to be sustained than complaints from black or Latino people, the DOJ says.

    When it's an allegation of excessive force, whites are three times more likely to find that the police department accepts their side of the story.

    In general, nonwhite residents reported persistent dehumanizing and demeaning treatment at the hands of the police, the DOJ says. One black teenager, asked what change he'd want to see in the CPD, said, "Act like you care."

    True scope of problem "nearly impossible" to uncover

    There are multiple reasons why the DOJ thinks the Chicago Police Department has an even bigger problem than this report describes.

    For one thing, there's all those videos that call into question officers' accounts. The DOJ expresses concern that many more officer accounts, in incidents where there isn't video, might be similarly inaccurate.

    For instance, one officer wrote that a man had been struggling and kicking, requiring the use of force to control him. That kind of language frequently appears in use-of-force reports, the DOJ says.

    But video evidence showed the man had actually been handcuffed when the officer punched him multiple times. The officer's partner didn't report the incident, and his supervisors deemed the force justified. The DOJ implies it's impossible to know how many similar incidents are never caught on camera.

    Police also use "boilerplate" language to justify the use of force, with no details to allow investigators to evaluate the appropriateness of the force, and supervisors rarely review or investigate non-shooting incidents.

    Consider the officer who performed "an emergency take-down maneuver to regain control" when an 18-year-old woman was flailing her arms after a fight. The fact that the incident chipped her tooth suggests the true extent of force used, the DOJ says. The young woman — 5 feet 4 inches and 120 pounds — complained to the department that the 6-foot-1, 186-pound officer said he "didn't give a f- - -" about her injury. He was exonerated without an interview.

    That case had an indicative injury. In many other files, the DOJ says it is "nearly impossible for us to understand how much force officers used or whether the level of resistance justified the force used."

    Missteps stretching from training through punishment

    The failures of the Chicago Police Department start with the training of recruits and proceed all the way through to the punishment when incidents do occur, the DOJ says.

    Training is inadequate, the report states. For instance, the DOJ observed a training in deadly force that started 10 minutes late, ended 20 minutes early and was based on a 35-year-old video — with information that was legally inaccurate and "clearly out of date." One recruit appeared to be sleeping through the class.

    When investigators interviewed recent graduates of the police academy, only 1 in 6 "came close to properly articulating the legal standard for use of force," the DOJ writes.

    Protocols to prevent excessive use of force are inadequate and often unenforced, the DOJ says. Violations are often not investigated. When the police department does open investigations, they are — with "rare exceptions" — incomplete and unfair, the report says.

    Officers appear to collude with one another, not only following a "code of silence" but actively falsifying reports and lying in testimony, the report alleges. Meanwhile, investigators ask leading questions, union representatives coach officers on what to say, and contradictory evidence is ignored or never pursued, the DOJ reports.

    Even when serious misconduct is uncovered, officers can frequently avoid significant punishment.

    The result, the DOJ says, is a system of policing that is less effective and more dangerous for police officers — and regularly violates the constitutional rights of citizens.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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